They call an orgasm the little death — la petite mort.
Each time a man is satisfied, he dies for a moment in a woman’s arms.
When I was a teenager, learning more about sex through books and magazines, blogs and girlfriends than I did from hands-on experience, I was informed that when a man has an orgasm, he belongs to you more than he will in any other moment.
I don’t know if that’s true. I never asked a man whether it was true. Depending on the man who’s asked, how would I know whether or not the answer was truthful? People lie about sex all the time. A therapist is in a position to know this. Often, the lies are exposed when my patients recount their dreams. As they begin to describe the dream, they don’t immediately realize they’re telling the truth for the first time.
A female patient retells a dream that makes clear the cousin she believed was her closest friend, with whom she’s had a bitter falling out, put his hand down her pants when she was four. Partway through the telling of her dream, I’ve seen a woman stop speaking. Her gaze holds mine for a few seconds, then darts toward the door, looking for escape, terrified as she uncovers the lie she’s told herself for so many years.
Some of my patients are pleased when they realize they’ve finally said something real. Others are shocked and ashamed that anyone, even the therapist who keeps their secrets under lock and key, has seen their naked soul.
Other times, the lies about sex are finally cast away when a patient admits the truth to herself, or himself, without the accusing finger of a dream. Therapy has a way of backing people into a corner. If it’s done correctly, they come face to face with the many ways they lie to themselves. After that, they experience intense freedom. There’s a rawness in their psyche, but overall, they’re free. The truth does indeed set you free.
Of course, la petite mort isn’t just about a man dying in a woman’s arms. The term applies equally to women.
And the little death also more broadly refers to a period of melancholy or transcendence that follows the release of the life force. The little death is an experience that pre-figures death itself.
Death is the farthest thing from a patient’s mind when she, or he, enters my office for the first time. Very few people start seeing a therapist to talk about the bigger questions of life. There’s a presenting issue — divorce, a rebellious child, a controlling mother, a cold father, betrayal, compulsive eating or drinking or gambling or sex, career frustration, crushing guilt, and yes, grief. But the grief that drives a person to a therapist is more about their own life and loss, not death per se.
Gemma Hughes was the first patient who sought me out through an ad I’d placed on Facebook. It’s an unorthodox way to acquire new therapy patients, but my referral channels had dried up slightly. Too many people are looking for quick-fix behavioral counseling — help me stop uncontrolled snacking in eight sessions, provide techniques for moderating my short temper in six weeks, that sort of thing. It took a while for the ad to attract new patients, but eventually, it did. Facebook allows very granular targeting, which helps. For example, women bereft after the end of a love affair. I had to turn away a few who responded, but not all, and not Gemma. She fit the ad profile perfectly.
Therapy takes at least a year, often more, if it’s done correctly.
Right from the start, Gemma told me she had no intention of spending a year with me, but she’d been gripped by the teaser in my ad. The text asserted my ability to help women who’d been dumped, abandoned, cheated on, or betrayed, to regain their sense of self and heal the pain.
Can you really make the pain go away?
That was the first question out of her mouth. She slid right past the promise of regaining a sense of her self.
Studying her parted lips, her dilated pupils, the chewed-off fingernails, my heart ached, feeling the pain that was written across every feature of her very pretty face. She looked like her heart had truly been cleaved in two. “I believe I can.”
“That doesn’t sound as guaranteed as your ad.”
It was advertising, what did she expect?
I needed to see a woman, or man, in person to establish that heartfelt connection that would assure them they were in good hands with me. To help them believe I could help, that I wanted to help, that I would feel every step of the process with them.
Therapists are trained to avoid shouldering a patient’s feelings, but that can be taken to the extreme. Patients know when you’re too detached, and they read it as insincerity. They know when you get it and when you’re keeping your distance — simply asking questions, taking notes, nodding and looking empathetic, pretending to care.
I truly cared. I do care. Deeply.
“You have to truly want to be free of the pain,” I said.
“Then, yes. I can help. If you’re willing to work hard.”
“Explore the difficult questions. Refuse to lie to yourself.”
“I never lie to myself.” She smiled.
That, of course, was a lie. We all lie to ourselves. And each lie is a little death of our true selves.
“Tell me why you’re here,” I said.
She looked confused. She was quiet for several minutes. “He doesn’t love me anymore.” She gasped for air. “It feels like something’s squeezing my heart all the time. I can’t breathe.” Her eyes filled with tears.
I thought again about the little death. The way a man dies, for a moment, a fraction of second, after the satisfaction of making love.
The man that would soon die in my arms would not be taken by the little death. He would be a victim of the big death, la grande mort, if you will.
Blood would seep across his chest, soaking his shirt as he exhaled his final breath. I would be relieved to see him go. I would be satisfied, but he would not.